The significant reductions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments—a combined 2 million acres—have taken center stage in the uproar over the Trump administration’s “review” of national monuments. But other, less-visible monuments are threatened, too, including one that can be seen only by submarine. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s official recommendations to the president, released this week, advise drastic changes to three of the country’s five marine monuments. If President Trump accepts the plans, 62 million acres of remote coral reefs and islands in the Pacific, protected as Rose Atoll and the Pacific Remote Islands National Monuments, would be open to commercial fishing and reduced in size. And in the Atlantic, slightly more than 3 million acres of submerged mountains and deepwater corals—the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument—would be fished commercially as well.
These three monuments were all set aside because they encompass some of the rarest habitats within U.S. boundaries. Rose Atoll, two islands and a coral reef ring near American Samoa, serves as the breeding spot for 97 percent of seabirds in the region. The Pacific Remote Islands host the world’s largest Sooty Tern colony as well as endangered Phoenix Petrels and rarely seen White-throated Storm-petrels. And the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument, which was created last year, is a safe breeding ground for fish that grow up to support fisheries and, during the winter months, Atlantic Puffins.
While Zinke’s recommendations would technically continue to preserve these areas under the ‘monument’ label, fishing in these areas would degrade the very objects the designation is intended to protect. The monuments preserve carbonate reefs and underwater mountains, but those objects have national value only because of the life they support.
To understand the negative impacts of fishing, look to Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument off the coast of New England. These delicate deep-water corals survive only because they lie too far below the surface for most fishing nets to reach. When the monument was designated last year, red crabbers and lobstermen still trawling within its boundaries were given seven years to leave; once vacated, the monument—a miniscule 1.5 percent of all viable fishing waters in the region—would be the only marine reserve on the East Coast.
Peter Auster got to know the stunning range of species within the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument back in the 1980s. When the University of Connecticut and Mystic Aquarium marine biologist steered a submarine through the canyon’s depths, the cruise was “like a stroll through Dr. Seuss’s garden,” he says, “and instilled an appreciation for the diversity of life on our planet and the diversity of resources in U.S. waters.”
If fishermen were let back into the monument, they’d be overseen by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary U.S. fisheries law. On its face, the act is a reasonable option: It sets limits on a fishery’s catch to prevent overfishing, and puts restrictions on fisheries that go over the catch limit. If implemented correctly, fisheries should technically leave behind plenty of fish to reproduce and replace those fished out. The act is even credited with rebuilding some fisheries after they crashed.
But in practice, the regional offices that set and enforce catch limits aren’t perfectly diligent. The New England operations in particular lean toward a looser interpretation of the law, says Priscilla Brooks, vice president and director of ocean conservation at the Conservation Law Foundation. Of the eight fishing councils responsible for adhering to Magnuson-Stevens, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC)—the one watching over the waters surrounding the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts—oversees more fisheries that are over their catch limit or so overfished as to put the stock in jeopardy. "I would say the NEFMC has the worst track record of fish management in the country,” Brooks says. As for whether the council would prevent overfishing if the monument opened again, "the history does not suggest that that’s remotely possible."
Rip Cunningham, one of the former chairs of the NEFMC, says that opening the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Monument would be short-sighted and diminish U.S. natural resources in the long term. “I think it’s unfortunate that the current administration’s attitude towards natural resources is, ‘we need to grab as much as we can today and we can worry about tomorrow, tomorrow,'” he says.
Additionally, Magnuson-Stevens regulates fish only. There are no consequences for damage caused by fishing equipment— for example, if nets haul in chunks of coral. In New England waters, these dredging accidents happen frequently. Fishermen going after deepwater fish, crabs, or lobsters use weighted nets—one is named the “canyon buster”— that drag along the seafloor to scoop up a catch. Auster saw the equipment’s damage firsthand in 2005, when he explored a shallower set of Atlantic seamounts in a submarine. As he and his crew climbed out of a canyon, they expected to see a thriving cold-water coral ecosystem at the summit. Instead, the top was scraped bare.
For the time being, fishing technology cannot reach the bottom of the deep canyons within Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. However, “we can assume fishing technology can adapt to any condition,” Brooks says. If that technology were developed and used within the canyons, it would rip through the one-of-a-kind corals that take a century or more to grow—and with no consequences, despite the “national monument” designation and lawful protection under the Antiquities Act. “If we knock them down, they're not coming back in any ecologically meaningful amount of time,” Auster says.
Together, overfishing and coral damage are enough to degrade the monument by disturbing a major food source and habitat for its wildlife—though the impacts don’t end there. Currents rolling through the underwater mountains and valleys deliver nutrients to the ocean’s surface, which fish like white hake and Acadian redfish consume. Because fishermen previously left this region largely untouched, these fish grow big and old within the monument. Bigger, older fish produce more young fish that then spill out of the monument’s boundaries. These fish are consumed by the region’s wildlife, including Atlantic Puffins that nest in Maine and lower Canada. In winter, they rely on fish fed by the monument’s nutrient-rich deep waters—a discovery made only last year by Steve Kress, director of Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, and part of the justification for creating the monument.
These fish also spill out to replenish fish stocks. Indeed, the monument was designated in part to ensure species fished in New England waters have a safe nursery. “Areas open to fishing can become depleted and they need to be restocked naturally from somewhere,” Kress says. “This sanctuary is that kind of place.”
Though the shallow-water corals protected by the two Pacific marine monuments are quite different than those found in the Atlantic monument's deep waters, they serve similar roles as fish nurseries and feeding grounds for wildlife. Fishing in these areas will likely imperil those reefs, as well. And once underwater ecosystems like these become degraded, continued decline can be precipitous—until there isn't anything left to protect.